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The Birth of Nuclear Research

On May 18, when the AEC announced it had chosen Idaho Falls as its headquarters city, civic leaders were ecstatic.

When the Atomic Energy Commission announced it had chosen Idaho Falls as its 'headquarters city' on May 18, 1949, The Post-Register trumpeted the news on its front page. (Post Register file/BYU-Idaho Special Collections)

The Birth of Nuclear Research

By Rick Bolton, INL Communications & Public Affairs

Atomic Energy Commission picks Idaho as 'perfect location' for National Reactor Testing Station
Eastern Idaho's destiny as the birthplace for America's pursuit of the peaceful use of the atom came down to real estate fundamentals: location, location, location.

In late February 1949, when the newly established Atomic Energy Commission was mulling dozens of potential sites throughout the nation to establish the National Reactor Testing Station, eastern Idaho emerged as a premier choice.

Here in eastern Idaho, people were buzzing about the possibility of the Lost River desert being chosen for the nation’s first “atomic plant,” but they really weren’t certain of their chances. News coverage was modest. The decision was being made at the highest levels of government, and officials were mum.

Choosing Idaho
The AEC's chief selection criteria were: a sizable amount of public land; isolation from large populations; plenty of water; transportation for shipping; relatively close cities and towns to attract workers; predictable weather and wind; and stable geology.

Walter Zinn, the first director of the new Argonne National Laboratory, led a search for the perfect location. In the end, the AEC’s decision on where to locate its National Reactor Testing Station came down to two sites, the Arco/Pocatello Naval Proving Ground site and Fort Peck, Mont., the location of a massive earthen dam built in the 1930s. The naval proving ground won the contest. In late February 1949, The AEC approved a report recommending the Idaho location. But it kept the decision quiet for three weeks.

Locals awaited the AEC’s site selection announcement like infatuated schoolboys. They had asked the AEC to dance, but civic leaders didn’t want to appear presumptuous and assume the answer would be “yes.”

The Times
Early 1949 was the start of a transition in world history, a time when American families were getting back to normal after World War II. Those were relaxed, happy days mixed with anxiety. While the war had ended, Americans worried about a new threat on the horizon, the expansion of communism.

Among the top news items early in 1949 were the first Israeli election, in which David Ben-Gurion became prime minister. Grady the Cow, a 1,200-pound Hereford, gained national media attention when she got stuck inside a silo on a farm in Yukon, Okla. (a veterinarian freed her after three days). On March 1, world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis retired. That spring, Rodgers and Hammerstein's “South Pacific,” starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, opened on Broadway and went on to become the second longest-running musical. Popular songs were Frankie Lane's "That Lucky Old Sun," Vic Damone's "You're Breaking My Heart," and Perry Como's "Some Enchanted Evening."

Amid these and other daily news events, the AEC’s decision to begin building a reactor testing complex on the high desert sagebrush of eastern Idaho became national news on March 22, when word finally leaked out. The Associated Press issued this national Bulletin: “Washington – The atomic energy commission announced Tuesday it plans to locate its new western plant at Arco, near Pocatello, Idaho. The total area for the new plant, which may cost $500 million, will be about 400,000 acres. The new reactor testing station will compare in area with the Hanford Plutonium production center on the Columbia River in Washington.”

Torchlight parade in Arco
(Ada Marcia Porter Family photo)
When local leaders heard that the AEC had smiled on Idaho by answering in the positive – yes, it would locate its “atomic plant” in eastern Idaho – there was dancing in the streets. Tiny Arco, the nearest community to the desert site of the new project, held a torchlight parade led by the high school band, followed by a celebratory dance in the recreation hall.

After the announcement that Idaho was the perfect site, civic leaders in communities from Pocatello to Blackfoot to Idaho Falls and Arco set out to convince the AEC to locate its headquarters in their town. Most of these activities occurred away from publicity, in homes or public offices where local leaders quietly met with AEC leaders to convince them their town was the most pleasant, and had the best infrastructure and potential to accommodate a federal government field office.

On May 18, when the AEC announced it had chosen Idaho Falls as its headquarters city, civic leaders were ecstatic.

The Post-Register heralded the news with the headline, “Citizenry Swell With Pride on Office Location – The Idaho Falls citizenry swelled with pride Wednesday after hearing that their city had been chosen as the administrative city for the new atomic reactor plant in the Lost River desert. Especially jubilant were members of the Greater Idaho Falls committee who Wednesday capped long, arduous hours of planning and study in arraying the city’s offerings for representatives of the atomic energy commission.”

Wreathed in Atomic Smiles: Bubbling with jubilation over selection of Idaho Falls as the 'administrative city' for the Idaho atomic reactor plant are these three Idaho Falls leaders who are at the helm of the city's atomic planning. Showering each other with congratulations, they are, left to right, E.F. McDermott, chairman of the Greater Idaho Falls committee, Mayor Thomas L. Sutton, and William S. Holden, member of the Greater Idaho Falls planning organization who with Mayor Sutton represented Idaho Falls at recent hearings of the atomic energy commission at Washington, D.C. (Post-Register staff photo) Reprint courtesy of William Holden Family
In a front-page editorial, the paper stated: “This is a proud moment in Idaho Falls’ history. The decision of the atomic energy commission to locate its headquarters in this city provides us with almost unlimited opportunity in the future. It may well prove the spring board that will project this already thriving metropolis into a top spot in the economic development of the west.”

The metropolis of Idaho Falls, then about 19,000 souls, was in for more than two decades of boom growth as the population doubled to 38,000 by 1965 while the desert west of the city was transformed into the government’s first nuclear power research and test site.

Story sources:
"Proving the Principle," by Susan M. Stacy; "The Up 'N Atom City," booklet at Museum of Idaho; The Post-Register archives; Idaho Statesman archives; INL display at Museum of Idaho

Idaho National Laboratory Research Programs

Department of energy

DOE Office of Nuclear Energy
DOE-Idaho Office